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The brutal killing of Father Jacques Hamel during Mass in France on Tuesday by two assailants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group cast a shadow over Francis’s trip to headline World Youth Day.
Speaking to journalists on the flight from Rome to Krakow the pontiff said: “We must not be afraid to say the truth, the world is at war because it has lost peace.”
“When I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace, it’s the others who want war,” he later clarified.
“The word we hear a lot is insecurity, but the real word is war. The world has been in a fragmented war for some time. There was the one in 14, one in 39-45 and now this,” he said referring to World War I and II.
A string of terror attacks targeting civilians in Europe appears to have dampened turnout for the World Youth Day festival, a week-long faith extravaganza dubbed “the Catholic Woodstock”.
Flag-waving crowds of youngsters nonetheless turned out in force to cheer on the pope as he sped to the Wawel Royal Castle in his open-top popemobile, defying security fears.
Around 200,000 pilgrims attended the opening mass on Tuesday, according to Krakow police, while organisers had expected around half a million.
In John Paul II’s footsteps
“World Youth Day is a great celebration and we hope the attack in France will not ruin it,” said Marcin Przeciszewski, head of Catholic Information Agency KAI, as worshippers gathered Tuesday to pray for the fallen French priest.
Francis, 79, will likely have to work overtime to win hearts and minds in the homeland of Saint Pope John Paul II.
The charismatic saint, hailed for his role in toppling Communism, sponsored conservative Catholic movements — a legacy which sits uncomfortably with the Argentine pontiff’s attempts to nurture a more flexible, compassionate Church.
The French priest’s murder has also complicated the pope’s aim to champion migrants, while emboldening Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her right-wing government who have refused to take in refugees for security reasons.
But Polish President Andrzej Duda appeared to signal a softening of Warsaw’s stance following closed-door talks with the pope.
“If someone wants to come here, especially if they are a refugee, fleeing war to save their life, we will of course accept them,” he told reporters.
Poland is on high security alert, deploying over 40,000 personnel for the visit. Authorities also charged an Iraqi man on Monday with possessing trace amounts of explosive material.